judicial restraint | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Introduction

Judicial restraint refers to a judicial philosophy that holds that judges’ personal political beliefs should not influence court decisions.

Contrast with Judicial Activism

Judicial restraint is a belief or philosophy that encourages judges to limit the exercise of their own power. It suggests that judges should avoid letting their personal views impact their decisions. Instead, they should interpret the Constitution and other laws in a narrow and specific way. This is done to respect the actions of the elected branches of government – the Legislative and Executive branches. In essence, it’s about the judiciary, or court system, knowing its place and not overstepping its boundaries.

Roots of Judicial Restraint

The roots of judicial restraint come from the U.S. Constitution. This document sets up the three branches of government and defines their powers. The authors of the Constitution, known as the Founding Fathers, didn’t want one branch to become too powerful. So, they created a system of “checks and balances.” This system allows each branch to check, or limit, the power of the others.

Judicial restraint is a part of this balance. It’s a way for judges to check their own power. They do this by not interpreting laws in a way that would change the meaning intended by lawmakers. They uphold the decisions of the people who are elected to make the laws, like Congress.

Judicial Restraint in Action

When a judge uses judicial restraint, they take a careful and reserved approach to making decisions. They look closely at the facts of the case and the law as it is written. They don’t use their power to make new laws or to change the meaning of old ones.

For example, let’s say there is a law banning certain types of protests. A judge using judicial restraint would look at the specific wording of the law and apply it to the case at hand. They would not look at whether they personally think the law is fair or right.

Pros and Cons of Judicial Restraint

Like many ideas, judicial restraint has its benefits and drawbacks. On one hand, it respects the power and decisions of the elected branches of government. It keeps the judiciary from becoming too powerful. After all, judges are not elected and serve for life, so this philosophy keeps them in check.

On the other hand, it may limit the court’s ability to protect individual rights or to adapt to new situations. For example, if a law is unfair but is written in a certain way, a judge practicing judicial restraint may uphold it, even if it doesn’t seem just. After all, they would only be looking at the specific wording of the law, not its impact.

Conclusion: Judicial Restraint and Its Role

All in all, judicial restraint is a philosophy that defines the role of the judiciary within the system of checks and balances. It keeps the power of judges in check, ensuring they interpret laws narrowly and according to their original intent. It respects the decisions of lawmakers, but also raises questions about how to best protect individual rights and adapt to new situations. Like many aspects of the criminal justice system, it involves a delicate balance. Whether it is the right approach or not is often up to interpretation and debate.

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Last Modified: 06/12/2023


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